Human smugglers of the Sahara

Human smugglers of the Sahara


Barka al Qatrun, a human smuggler who transports migrants across the Sahara, looks out for cars driven by his colleagues outside the city of Agadez in Niger.

The group is part of a trade that has sprung back to life despite a recent crackdown. Though government actions initially stemmed the flow of migrants across the Sahara, people smugglers have opened up new routes, and have begun charging people more than ever to make the trip.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Perched on the southern rim of the Sahara, the city of Agadez (pictured above) has served for years as a hub in the networks that smuggle people, guns, drugs and food across the desert.

But after 92 people died of thirst attempting to cross the Sahara in late September, the government of Niger moved to shut down the decades-old migrant routes in the area.

"We cannot remain indifferent in the face of this tragedy,” Colonel Garba Maikido, the governor of Agadez told national radio. "We must take measures so that this type of tragedy never happens again on our territory."

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

But despite official moves, smugglers of migrants (like the men pictured above) are still to be found in Agadez.

Following the September deaths, police raided dozens of transit houses, where would-be emigrants stay until heading off across the desert for North Africa and Europe beyond. They also arrested a handful of smugglers and officials.

About 50 policemen in the region around Agadez were replaced. Niger’s government says large-scale migrant smuggling, which in effect was officially tolerated for years, has now ended.

However, interviews with migrants, smugglers and officials in Agadez and in the capital Niamey tell a different story. The crackdown has ended the spectacular mass departures of the past, but migrants continue to leave the ancient trading town.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

In the picture above, passengers in a pickup truck arrive in Agadez from Libya.

The route between the two countries is a popular one for emigrants heading to Europe, particularly after a clampdown by Spanish and African authorities over recent years put pressure on an alternate migrant route through the Canary Islands.

The crackdown there has meant more traffic through the Sahara, where the violence and chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya has made things easier for people hoping to pass through.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Statistics on the numbers of those who try to cross the Sahara are sketchy.

At least 34,800 people have made the treacherous crossing from North Africa to Europe so far this year, compared to 43,000 in all of 2013, according to figures from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

Hundreds of those are likely to have come via Agadez. Garba Maikido, the Agadez governor (pictured above) estimates that some 3,000 migrants a week headed to Libya before the crackdown. A Niamey-based diplomat put the weekly number at 3,000 to 5,000.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

In the image above, messages written by Gambian migrants, who were deported from Libya, are seen on the wall of a room in Agadez, where the migrant trade quietly continues even if it is not on the same grand scale as before.

The speed with which human smuggling has revived in the area despite official measures shows how hard it is for nations such as Niger to stop illegal emigrants from leaving.

The experience of the past few months in Agadez also highlights the problem of official collusion in the trade.

Often, the very people meant to police the immigrant routes are involved in the business themselves, according to migrants, diplomats and an internal government report seen by Reuters.

So far, no one in a senior position has been charged with involvement in the trade.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

The official crackdown has also pushed the multi-million dollar business further into the hands of smuggling gangs, dominated by the Sahara’s nomadic Toubou tribe.

Barka al Qatrun (pictured above), a Toubou, has been ferrying migrants to Libya for seven years. He and seven fellow drivers continue to work the trade.

“Now we just pay more” to security officials, he said.

. AGADEZ, Niger. REUTERS/Joe Penney

A group of Nigeriens, who are travelling north in the direction of Libya, walk to board a truck after passing a checkpoint in Agadez.

They are not the only ones heading in that direction.

Although home to some of the continent's fastest growing economies, West Africa is struggling to generate enough jobs for its mushrooming young population. As a result, migrants from countries as diverse as oil-rich and democratic Ghana to Gambia, a relatively poor police state, are still taking their chances by heading north to Europe, often through Agadez.